Can You Tolerate This?

article image


Photo by Adobe Stock/

When you go to your chiropractor, he first asks you to take off your necklace. Then he stands behind you and puts his hands around your neck. He squeezes the vertebra at the base of your skull. The vertebra feels tender as if bruised. “Can you tolerated this?” he asks. You try to nod. You hadn’t known that vertebrae could reach so far up, right to the back of the brain.

“Oh yes. The vertebrae go all the way up to the head, like a ladder. Humans are really just highly evolved ladders.”

You like the idea that the human body is first and foremost a structure, like flat-pack furniture or a foldaway bed. The ribs, too, go up a long way into the soft fleshy parts of the back near the armpits.

You lie down on the stretcher, which is a low vinyl-covered table with a headrest that has two fabric-covered sausages on each side, into the center of which you put your face. From there, in a muffled voice, you talk to your chiropractor: about the foul spring weather, how you were knocked off your bike last week, maybe how you’re thinking of quitting your job.

You’ve known the chiropractor for two years. He’s a nice man. He’s someone who, when you say something banal — which is often — reacts as if you’ve said something extraordinary or very funny. But you’re not really paying attention to this conversation. It’s the other conversation you’re interested in: the one between his hands and your back. Your back feels as if it’s listening. You know his hands are close when you feel a tingle in the skin on your back, as if the nerves in your spine are reaching up to the surface.

Your chiropractor begins to knead your spine. You can hear him counting under his breath — T3, T4, T5. Those are some of your thoracic vertebrae, named according to their positions within the spine.

It sounds like torture when you try to describe it to other people. You come here to have your spine shoved or your head wrenched sideways. Better to talk about the lightness and tallness you feel when you leave. Some people are so afraid of chiropractic that hey become afraid of you if you mention your chiropractor. The difficulty is that a person’s life is held, essentially, in the spine. If you mess badly with it, you will die or be paralyzed. Your jaw will seize and your eyes will stare frozenly. For some, chiropractic will never escape those connotations of torture. Mostly it’s because we think bones should be silent. When we hear them moving, we think of pain, of permanence.

“Those aren’t your bones making that noise,” says your chiropractor when you ask. “It’s actually gas.” It’s the sound of tiny bubbles of oxygen, nitrogen, and CO2 — by-products that are formed in the production of the synovial fluid in the joints of the spine. The gas releases from the joint with a pop. Nothing ever happens to the bones themselves, the chiropractor says. The bones stay quiet, the introverts of the body.

If you ever ask him a question, it’s as if the chiropractor becomes worried that you’ve grown skeptical and he has to persuade you all over again. So now he explains that the spine is like a scaffold, or a bridge between your nerves and your body, holding all of you upright so that the work of art that is the body can commence motion. He laments the way people say, “I’ve put my back out,” as if a back were something you could hold at arm’s length and leave on the curbside. “The problem with people is that they think of themselves as bits and pieces. Go to the gym, work on your pectorals. Work on your quads. A body part here. A body part there. Then we wonder why we feel so disconnected from ourselves. As if your head lives on a different continent from your feet, or your eyes live on a different planet from your heart. Well, for some people perhaps that is figuratively true. But most of us live in the one body, wouldn’t you agree? All of those parts are endlessly, infinitesimally connected.” He says that if your scaffolding is askew, then the rest of your body and your mind won’t work. Things start sliding, shaking, falling. You wake up one morning and you can’t move your neck. That’s where the manipulations — or, more technically, subluxations — come in. all day long, he is not only fixing but reconnecting.

“I’m not saying there aren’t some essential differences between the human body and, say, an airplane. But there aren’t very many.” He pauses, he’s found something, some vertebrae that aren’t where they should be. “Deep breath in — and deep breath out —” and he pushes your spine so hard it crackles electrically.

He has you roll to the left. He rearranges your arms so that you’re in a relaxed fetal position. Then he presses one of his knees against your thigh — he has large square knees that dwarf your smallish round ones — and pushes. There’s a faint crackling sound, like roots pulling up. You imagine fissures appearing in your body as if during a quake.

“Can you tolerate this?”

You keep your eyes half closed but you can see him looming above you like a pylon. “Yup. I’m fine.” You roll to the right and he cracks open the other side.

Sometimes, when you’re lying here having your vertebrae prodded, he will ask you a question. The question will be big and difficult. It will be something like, “What do you think is the difference between a thought and an emotion?”

You will struggle to answer. But you try to sound as if you think about this kind of thing all the time, as if you’re on a slightly different time-space continuum from everybody else. “Well, a thought is only ever in your head. An emotion can be, I don’t know, in other places in your body. It can be everywhere. It’s kind of a shapeless and fluid. It can feel almost physical, like a pain.” Your voice sounds all wrong against the stretcher.

He never agrees or disagrees with what you say; instead he pauses for a moment — you can feel him thinking, through his hands — and then says something like, “Could you say, perhaps, that an emotion is a physical thought?”

Immediately you wish you had thought of this. “Exactly! An emotion can make you feel sick or sweaty or excited, and those are all like physical expressions of different thoughts.”

Talking like this makes you wriggle around, and your chiropractor gently straightens you out or puts your arms back down at your sides.

In the past, like most people, you thought that seeing a chiropractor was an absurd risk. It wasn’t until a friend at work, telling you about his own pain, persuaded you that there was something good in this method — something that really worked, maybe even something transformative — that, being desperate with shoulder pain, you decided to reconsider.

At first it felt like a mistake, this blind trusting of a person, much bigger and stronger than you with your life. But when you’re stretched out on this vinyl table, when your chiropractor puts his hands on your back and tells you what he knows about your bones, then the idea of risk becomes only that: an idea. Something rootless. There’s something else, too. This feeling that happens when you are touched. It is kind of trust in itself. Trust is something that moves about between you, that rises to meet him.

“That back is good to go. Sit up now,” he says. You do, fuzzy-haired, squinting your eyes have adjusted so quickly to the facedown darkness that they feel splintered by light from a window. The sun in angling in. the egg-colored elasticated spine is hanging in the corner. “Let’s take a look at that neck of your.”

He looks down at you and takes your head in both hands. He presses your throat just under your jawline, the bones at the base of your skull, and the tender spots under your ears. He gazes over the top of your head. You can’t help thinking at this point that, maybe, he will lean down and kiss you. That he will frame your face with his hands and engulf your mouth warmly, and the office space and the spine hanging in the corner and the anatomical posters on the walls will disappear. There is too little difference between the beginning of a kiss and the beginning of a neck adjustment. You stare at his face, waiting, breathing through your mouth.

After a final pause, he yanks your head to the left — snap — then to the right. The sound is a sheet of bubble wrap popping. Your chiropractor steps back and nods, finally looking you in the eye. Now that he’s out of your personal space, he is safe.

“You’re good at those,” he remarks with a wry smile. “Most people scream a little bit.”

You try out your new neck: it feels freer, oilier, as if all the synovial fluid has been released to flood over the joints in there. And your head sits more lightly, an egg balanced in a spoon.

But wouldn’t it be easier to simply feel nothing? It wouldn’t be a problem if you could think of your body as an airplane, as your chiropractor does, or simply a lattice of sinew and bone, muscle, soft tissue, nerve fibers. A body with an ordinary skeleton inside it; it could be anyone’s, it could be one of those pink-and-white posters on the wall, bristling with pointers and labels.

To mask your lapse, and perhaps to redeem yourself to your chiropractor in case he has sensed what you were thinking during the neck adjustment, you quickly ask another question even though this will hold him up. “Do you ever get annoyed about skeptics? I mean do you have people who come in and say they think it’s all phony but their friend told them to come, that kind of thing?”

“Oh,” he says — and you can hear the pragmatism in his voice; he’s used to being the reasonable, rational one among the disbelieving —“there’s certainly a lot of folklore around. People think they’ve slipped a disc. They think they’ve got a nerve floating around in their spine, you know, just drifting around in there. Sometimes when I treat people’s backs, they think I’ve broken them in half! Or they think I’ll give them a stroke or a heart attack. But look, I don’t waste my energy getting frustrated anymore. You have to look above all that stuff. You have to work above it.”

You take your necklace from his desk and put it back on. You always feel a little awkward doing this; this small, intimate putting-on in your chiropractor’s office. Briefly you are a woman in a movie.

He is shuffling the pages of his appointment book. “How are you for next Thursday at noon?” Between his eyes is a hearty furrow. How old is he? You’re no good at guessing age. The whites of his eyes are properly white, not like the whites of most eyes, which are singed with vessels or nicotine-yellow; in most eyes you can see what people have been looking at: traffic, computer screens, TVs. You find yourself staring at his skin. You can imagine him in one of those multiblade razor ads, the kind where a fighter plane is tearing through the sky. Its body explodes to reveal your chiropractor tensed and helmeted at the controls; the air resistance tips his suit from his body to reveal his bare torso, then he is neatly deposited in an incandescent bathroom as a razor darts through the air and slots into his hand. His face, now magically slathered with shaving foam, appears above the razor.

“Thursday’s good for me.”

After paying up — twenty-five dollars for fifteen minutes, which you can’t really afford — you smile good-bye and he puts his hand lightly on your shoulder, as if placing a full stop there. He is a genuinely nice man. He is interested in people their bones, their physical thoughts. And you feel the thing you so often feel when you meet someone like this — that you have done nothing to deserve this niceness.

When you’re walking down the stairs, you feel a suspicious glow in your belly. It’s then you realize: you’ve got to stop this. Your chiropractor is a mechanic and you are a vehicle in occasional need of repair. When being helped, that is all we need to be. A hairdresser touches hundreds of hearts. None of that means anything beyond what it is.

A month or so down the line, you’re greeted at the office by a young woman with a shiny brown ponytail. Your usual chiropractor is away today. The woman has strong hands and enviable self-confidence. She adjusts your lower back, hips, neck, and the stick-outy rib that is causing your sore shoulder. You leave feeling slightly delirious.

At your next appointment, she tells you that your usual chiropractor is in hospital. He has a tumor. “I just wanted to let you know,” she said. “It’s early days yet. He’s doing fine. We’ll just see what happens.”

You think of your chiropractor in hospital, waiting for tests, waiting to see what happens. Who does he trust with his life? You wonder what it would be like to visit him. You could take flowers, a book, a car. But, of course you don’t visit. He will already have so many visitors. He will be tired. He will need to sleep between visits.

At each appointment over the next months, the new chiropractor tells you he’s doing okay. Then she stops mentioning him, and simultaneously you just stop wondering. It’s as if some part of you has decided that he will no longer appear in your life and is shutting down the wondering mechanism. Your new chiropractor has warm, friendly eyes and a ready smile. She knows the parts of your neck that store tension in gnarls (she has something called and Activator gun — it looks like a syringe from hell — that she shoots into each side of your neck); she knows all about the wayward rib; she knows that there are two muscles on either side of your lower spine that are always sore. At first you’d thought they were your kidneys. Sometimes it seems that you don’t know your body at all. The names and locations of things. You need someone else to tell you what your body is doing.

At the vegetable market the air is cool from a night of rain. Broken stalks and leaves are scattered on the asphalt among the stalls. People gather and bend and fill seamy plastic bags. You’re looking for tomatoes when you see your chiropractor, your old one, bending toward a crate full of apples, sorting through them. You hold back for a second — this could be weird and awkward — then say hello. He looks at you for a few seconds, searching then straightens and smiles and says hello back. “How are you doing? How’s that neck?”

“Pretty good. I’m keeping it in line.” Then you go shy and fumbling. “I heard that you’ve been unwell. How are you?”

“I’m fine now,” he says, nodding. He does look fine, if you look at the surface of his face and don’t know about the tumor, which must be gone now. His eyes look bright and clear/. He has grown a goatee. No longer will he be the jet man in the razor ad. You think how good it is to see him. You talk about the abundance of cheap avocados — three for two dollars. There are new stalls at the market and now you can get crêpes and pies and beer. You mention the book he once recommended to you. A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle — which you’d thought was partly interesting and mostly silly, but which you say you liked. He’s holding a canvas bag with bushels of celery sticking out the top. There is very little movement in his body. He stands quite stiffly with his head bowed toward your mouth.

Then there’s a quiet moment and the wind picks up as it always does, so you say. “Okay, well.” He says it was good to see you and puts his hand on your shoulder. Then you each wander away to different stalls. You have a minor current of electricity buzzing on your shoulder from where he put his hand. You mindlessly spend the rest of your money on half a pumpkin and two kumara that are so large they look mutant; huge, dark gnarled things with frizzy antennae, they look like they should never have come up out of the ground. Now you have to eat them, and you’ve spent all your money. Your chiropractor floats into your head at odd moments during the next few weeks. Small, boring thoughts, like, I wonder what he made with the celery, and What is a tumor made of. But a few months later, when you go to see the new chiropractor to sort out your neck which has seized up from too many hours sitting at your desk, she tells you, with mist in her kind eyes, that he has died.  

Ashleigh Young is a poet and editor at Victoria University Press. Her first book of essays, Can You Tolerate This?, received Yale’s Windham-Campbell Prize. Reprinted from Tin House (Volume 19, Number 4), a quarterly literary journal. 

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.